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A Bird In Hand

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"What is it with the two of you?" Morgana asked, as Arthur nibbled at a potato. "You and Uther have barely touched your food all evening."

"Morgana," Arthur warned.

"Fine, don't tell me anything. As usual. Perhaps I'll set Gwen at Merlin later and see if she can drag it out of him."

Arthur snorted. "I wouldn't think so."

Morgana looked over at Merlin, where he was leaning against the wall and looking bored. He was lucky that he didn't have to eat anything, though presumably he'd already gotten the worst of his nausea out of his system, since he'd had more time to react. Arthur was still angry at Merlin for not telling him the whole truth sooner, but was uncomfortably aware that his initial reaction would not have been any better. Perhaps even worse.

If this was what self-reflection was all about, Arthur didn't much care for it.

"Speaking of Merlin," Morgana began.

"Let's not."

"Oh, you want to spoil all my fun. I think it's exciting. Some proper court intrigue at last." She took a bite of meat and chewed it with blatant relish, taking even more enjoyment in Arthur's queasy reaction. "Is he any good?"

"Morgana!" Arthur whispered, sharply.

"I hope he has more skill between the sheets than he does at changing them," she continued, gleeful. At least she kept her voice low enough to be circumspect, and his father was entirely occupied in conversation with King Terit. Former King, Arthur supposed. "It was fun having him around for a few days, but he really was dreadful, even accounting for the one arm. I've always wondered why you put up with him."

Arthur wanted to throw something at her, but he forced himself into composure. "Merlin has always been perfectly serviceable," he lied, and then realized how that sounded and quietly fumed.

Morgana gave a low chuckle. "Gwen is a perfect dream as a servant. But I suppose she wouldn't be to your tastes."

"I think you've had enough fun," Arthur told her, coldly.

"Uther will be so disappointed if he finds out. He's often talked to me of potential princesses. Just think of how happy he would have been to bounce a grandchild on his knee."

Arthur knew he was doomed. "Just tell me what you want and get it over with."

Morgana laughed. "Nothing yet. Consider this a test. You failed miserably, by the way."

"So glad to hear it."

"Are you going to tell me why you've spent the whole feast moping? Usually you've tried to start a food fight at least once by now."

"You really don't want to know," Arthur told her, and meant it.

Morgana actually started to look concerned. "It's not Merlin, is it? Have you two already had your first spat?"

"Something like that," Arthur admitted. He pushed a limp piece of cabbage around his plate. "I didn't trust him with something important, and he didn't trust me."

"Hardly surprising. You don't trust anyone."

Arthur frowned at her. "That's not true at all."

"Arthur, I don't trust anyone. Uther doesn't trust anyone. This whole court is full of people who wouldn't dare risk baring their throats because there would be a dozen others ready to offer their knives. That's the way things work. I thought you of all people understood that."

Arthur looked around the room, at his father's court. It was true. Of course he had known it, but he'd never questioned it before. It was just the way things were. And of course it was Merlin who was making things different again. Making him want to trust and be trusted. Making him want to be vulnerable. It was madness. It would probably get them both killed.

It was just... it felt good. It felt like a relief. It felt like it was something he had been missing all of his life. He'd always thought it was his mother that was missing, some gentler, feminine influence in his life to counter his father's brusque masculinity. Who would have thought that influence would end up being Merlin?

"You're smiling," Morgana said, like she was glad to see it.

"I am not," Arthur said, not meeting her eyes. He tried to school his features into something impassive, but they wouldn't obey him.

"Oh!" Morgana said, eyes widening. "Oh, this is too good. I knew Merlin was besotted, but this is fantastic. Are you... are you actually blushing?"

Arthur refused to look at her. He gulped at his wine and refused to look at her.

"This explains so much," Morgana said, happily. "No wonder he was the first one to make you finally stand up to your father. I thought you were going to spend your whole life kissing his boots, and then all of a sudden you had a spine. Had you been pining away for him? Lying awake at night and dreaming of his lips?"

"I do not pine," Arthur said, through gritted teeth. "And Merlin's lips are-- are lips."

Morgana was absolutely in ecstasies. He had never seen her so happy. And worst of all, Arthur couldn't believe that he actually didn't mind it. That he was glad Morgana was happy, even at the cost of his own embarrassment. What was happening to him? It was all Merlin's fault, somehow. Merlin and his-- his Merlinness. It was infecting him. Next thing he knew he would be gathering flowers instead of hunting.

Merlin would probably like it if Arthur gave him flowers. Maybe it would help make up for Arthur not trusting him. They'd passed a lot of daisies on the way back to the castle.

"Kill me now," Arthur said, miserably in love.

Morgana patted his arm. "You can't fight these things," she told him, sympathetically. "If you do, it will only be worse. You have to let them run their course. Either you'll be sick of the sight of each other soon enough, or..."

Arthur was afraid to ask, but he did anyway. "Or?"

"Or you'll be stuck with each other for the rest of your lives," she finished, with false sympathy. "In which case Uther will eventually find out, and you'll become king because he'll keel over on the spot." She said the last with rather too much excitement and hope. Arthur knew that his father and Morgana had had a bumpy relationship of late, but he really didn't want Morgana to use Merlin as a weapon against Uther. It would be exactly like her to try.

"Morgana," Arthur began, thinking of throats and knives and wanting to trust. It was hard, almost ridiculously difficult, but he looked her in the eye and let her see the truth, just for a moment. "Please don't hurt him," he said, his heart in his throat.

Morgana stared at him, stunned. A whole series of reactions flickered across her face; he could almost see her considering how utterly cruel she could be before she softened.

"I wouldn't do that to him," she said at last. "Merlin doesn't deserve it."

"Thank you," Arthur said, honestly.

"You deserve anything you get," Morgana added, because no one in his family, blood-kin or otherwise, was allowed to be soft.

Arthur opened his mouth, bracing himself for another round of mutual insults, when his father stood up and cleared his throat. The roiling noise of the hall gradually fell silent.

"I propose a toast," Uther said, raising his goblet. "To the rescue of King Terit from a long and terrible enchantment. Truly our kingdoms will never be safe until the last traces of magic are banished from all of Albion."

Terit frowned, clearly displeased by Uther's attitude towards magic, but said nothing. It was a wise move. Arthur knew all too well how quickly his father could turn on anyone with the slightest whiff of magic about them, even a king. It would be easy for Uther to accuse Terit of being an imposter, or even a sorcerer. It was probably only his father's unending love of nobility that stopped him from ordering a fresh pyre to start off the feast.

"To Prince Arthur," Uther said, toasting him. Arthur obediently toasted back, and everyone drank.

"I have already sent my fastest messenger to Mercia," his father continued. "I expect his return within the week. If Bayard accepts, Arthur shall escort King Terit back to his lands."

Arthur nodded stiffly while he mentally grabbed an axe from the armory and swung it at his father's head. He had just got back from Mercia, he didn't want to have to drag himself all the way there and back again already! He had responsibilities, he had men to train. Merlin's arm needed weeks to heal completely, and Arthur couldn't risk him riding for days with one working arm. He would probably fall off his horse and break his other arm. Arthur would have to leave him behind, and every inch of himself rebelled at the thought. He would not leave Merlin, absolutely not. He would have to find some way to convince his father to keep Terit in Camelot a while longer, and hope that Merlin was a fast healer.

As he sat down again, he looked over at Merlin, who was no longer looking bored. Now he looked determined, exactly as he had that morning. Arthur knew with utter certainty that Merlin would refuse to stay behind this time. If Arthur couldn't work something out, if he tried to force Merlin to stay, Merlin would sling his bag over his shoulder and follow after him. He would probably take the fastest horse in an attempt to catch up with Arthur and end up thrown from the saddle and die in a ditch. No, Arthur would have to take Merlin along, even if he had to strap Merlin to his horse like a sack of grain. Arthur would put him on the gentlest, calmest horse in Camelot and help him on and off no matter how often Merlin complained that he wasn't a bloody girl and could do it himself. Because he was a girl. Clearly he was a girl, because Arthur wanted to give him flowers.

Towards the end of the feast, Terit excused himself for the night, saying he was still adjusting to his return to the world and needed to rest. Once he was gone, Uther beckoned Arthur to sit next to him, and leaned in, his breath heavy with wine.

"King Terit is absolutely to our advantage," Uther said, with quiet relish. "I don't trust him, but he'll be Bayard's problem soon enough. That will teach Bayard to try and force a land concession."

"You think Terit's return will be a problem?" Arthur asked.

"With any luck, it will cause a massive succession crisis," Uther said, grinning. "Mercia will be paralyzed by internal politics for months, perhaps even years. This will neuter them." He raised a gloved hand and mimicked grabbing all of Mercia by the balls and squeezing. He threw his head back and laughed. Then he slapped Arthur hard on the back. "Fantastic work, son. Absolutely fantastic."

"Ah, thank you," Arthur said, faintly. "I think perhaps I will follow Terit's lead and retire early. It has been a long day."

"Of course, of course," Uther said, waving him away. "You will sleep well tonight, for all that you have done for Camelot."

Arthur took his leave, catching Merlin's eye with a gesture and motioning for him to follow. Arthur strode through the quiet halls, impatient for the privacy of his chambers, a headache forming from the noise and the wine and his father and Morgana. He rubbed at his temples but it didn't help.

"I can't believe him," he said, the moment the door was locked.

"What?" Merlin said, baffled.

Arthur knew he should let it rest. He knew he should push all his anger back down and do his best to ignore it, the way he always did. What other choice did he have? He was trapped, and if he acknowledged the extent of it to himself, he would end up like some poor beast, gnawing off his own leg to escape.

"I can't," Arthur said, shaking his head, pacing back and forth. "My father, the King, he..." He made a frustrated noise.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, concerned. "Is this about going back to Mercia?" His eyes widened. "Do you think Bayard won't believe us? That we'll be walking into a trap? We have to tell your father."

Arthur gave an unhappy laugh. "You know he wouldn't listen. He never listens to anyone! And he's made me just like him!"

"Arthur, no," Merlin said, all sympathy. "I mean, yes, you need to listen more, but you're not like him. You're not."

"How can you say that?" Arthur shot back. "I never listen to a word you say."

"Sometimes you do," Merlin said, quietly. "When it really matters, you try. You listened today. You rescued Terit. You've stood up to your father when Camelot was in danger. You helped Ealdor after he turned my mother away."

"I carry out his orders. I do whatever he wants of me." Images flashed through Arthur's mind, of blood and fire and dying screams. There was so much he regretted, so much that should never have happened, and he did everything he could not to face it. Life was easier if he kept only to the surface of things and didn't acknowledge what roiled underneath. But his armor had cracked under some blow, and now his wounds were bleeding out.

Arthur realized he had stopped pacing, because Merlin had stopped him, standing in his way with his hand on Arthur's chest.

"Do you think I would believe in you if you were anything like him?" Merlin said, eyes clear and bright with that certainty of his, that Arthur wanted so badly to accept. "He is not my King, and if I do anything to help him it is only for you. You are my King, Arthur."

"How can you say that?" Arthur asked, shaken.

"Because it's true," Merlin said, eyes shining with belief. He stepped forward, his grip loose on Arthur's shirt. "I see the King inside of you. The King you will become."

"You can't," Arthur croaked.

"I do," Merlin said, smiling now. "I think... that's why I'm here. Maybe. Not just to protect you."

Arthur had to laugh, because Merlin was being absurd again. "When I'm King, I should make you my court jester."

Merlin looked briefly pained, but his smile came back with force. "Make me anything you want," he said, lightly. "My King."

Arthur took a sharp breath. "Be careful with such words."

"Which ones?" Merlin asked, pressing forward and forcing Arthur back a step. "That I am pledged to my King? That I have given myself to his service? That I will jest on my knees, if that is his command?"

It was treason for Merlin to speak that way, but it was a balm to Arthur's soul. He wanted to be the man that Merlin saw in him, wanted to be fearless and pure of heart, and not a slave to his father's whims, helpless against his cruelties.

Merlin pressed forward until Arthur felt his legs collide with the mattress, and he fell back onto the bed. Merlin sank between Arthur's spread thighs, down upon his knees, and everything was in his eyes, so much love and faith and want that it was like gazing upon the sun, how it hurt to look.

"You're only a servant," Arthur said, faint and dizzied.

Merlin's eyes hardened, but only to focus everything in them, sharpen every feeling to a point. "I am your servant," he said, determined. "Your jester. Anything you want of me."

Arthur rested his hand in Merlin's hair, holding him lightly. Searched in his eyes to try and understand him, how this boy, this man, could love him so. "What does my servant want?" he asked, distantly. He felt a thrill. My servant. He wondered, abstractly, if Merlin could transform him through sheer force of will, turn the muck of his soul into something pure and brilliant.

"Only his King," Merlin said, and a smile spread across his face. "All of his King."

Arthur shook his head, amazed. "You are the most single-bloody-minded--"

"I wouldn't have to be, if you would take what is freely given," Merlin said, frustration edging into his voice, breaking his calmness. "Is it something I've done? Are you... Do you not..." He looked away, and seemed to wilt before Arthur's eyes. "I'm sorry. I have no right."

The sudden shift left Arthur bereft, chasing after the vanished heat. "Merlin," he began, searching for the right words to bring it back.

"I'm just a servant," Merlin said, with a brittle smile. He seemed to draw on some internal well of strength, and straightened his head. "It's all right. I won't ask again. I'm sorry."

"Stop being sorry and let me talk," Arthur said, annoyed. Merlin flinched at his sudden sharpness, but shut his mouth and waited.

And waited. Arthur was having trouble finding the words he needed.

"My first time was..." he began, halting and strained. "It was an older man. A knight. I trusted him, looked up to him." He remembered the man's hands, broad and heavily calloused, with a network of scars from where knives and swords and other weapons of battle had sliced deep, because better his hands be opened than his throat or his chest or his belly. "We were headed out for my first battle. I think he thought... it would comfort me. Or himself." He swallowed. "I had liked the way he touched me, before. He said that I was eager for him, that I was sweet and soft, and I wanted... I suppose I wanted to prove myself. To prove I was a man, as hard as any other."

Arthur took a shuddering breath, let it out. He'd never spoken of this before, not a single word. Barely acknowledged it to himself, forcing it out of his thoughts until he forgot it. Except that he had never forgotten. And now Merlin's insistence dragged it out of the safe, dark silence and onto his tongue, into the light.

"It hurt. It hurt so much, but I didn't... I thought that it was supposed to hurt. I thought it was like everything else, another test to pass. I bled, and the next day I could barely walk. I was slow and distracted and because of that... because of what I did, men died. Men died that should have lived, and that was my fault. My father accused me of cowardice, and I couldn't dare tell him the truth. I..."

Merlin rose up from his knees and hugged him tight. Arthur held him back, fiercely hard, a few tears escaping his eyes and falling into Merlin's shirt.

"How old were you?" Merlin asked, gently.

"Fifteen," Arthur said, and shook his head. "I felt so old. Old enough to lead men into battle. But I was so young."

"Did you ever... was that the only time?" Merlin asked, carefully. He eased out of Arthur's arms to sit down beside him, but kept close enough to be touched.

"Yes," Arthur admitted. "Just for that. I've done other things, plenty of other things. I've taken women in the usual way. But I wouldn't let anyone else take me, and wouldn't take another man. I know it doesn't have to hurt, I know that now, but..."

Merlin gave a warm, understanding smile, his eyes free of any judgement or mockery, and Arthur breathed out sharply, relieved.

"You don't have to be afraid of hurting me," Merlin said, fondly. "I know what I'm doing."

"You don't," Arthur protested. "You can't. You're a virgin."

Merlin laughed. "Arthur, I... I can't explain, but... I do know what I'm talking about. We just have to take it slow. Use plenty of oil. I trust you. I trust you not to hurt me. I want us to do it because I know it will feel good."

"You're always doing this," Arthur said, torn between bemusement and irritation. "You're always asking me to trust you when it makes no sense that I should."

Merlin raised an eyebrow, and he was clearly spending too much time with Gaius because it was actually intimidating. "Is this about this morning?"

"This morning?" Arthur laughed. "It's every day with you."

"And all the times I've come to you, asking you to trust me? Am I just like Gaius to you? You just said you didn't want to be like your father because he doesn't listen to anyone. Why won't you listen to me?"

Arthur had no response to that. It wasn't because Merlin was wrong, because so often he was right. It wasn't because he thought Merlin was stupid or losing his faculties, because Merlin was an idiot about plenty of things but he had moments of remarkable insight. He didn't believe Merlin would lie to him. He didn't believe Merlin would try to manipulate him for his own advantage. It wasn't even because Merlin was a servant, because Merlin was already far too many things to him, far more than a mere manservant.

"Morgana says I don't trust anyone," Arthur admitted. "I suppose she's right. But I can't. I can't be weak."

"You can be weak with me," Merlin said, holding his gaze. "If you want to be."

"I do." It terrified Arthur and it felt like stepping right off a cliff, but he wanted to fall, wanted to be caught. If anyone would catch him, Merlin would. "I want that," he said, softly.

Merlin beamed at him. "I love you, you know that?"

"You may have mentioned it," Arthur said, fighting a smile. "Stop making things easy."

"You don't want things to be easy?" Merlin asked, cocking his head.

"It's... unfamiliar."

"Then you'd better start getting used to it," Merlin said, and kissed him to make a point of it. "It's my job to take care of you, whether you like it or not."

"Giving yourself a promotion?"

"I think you already did that," Merlin said, with a smirk. "This is much better than washing your socks."

"You still have to wash my socks," Arthur reminded him. "I've seen you kick them under my bed. Rolling them in the dust won't make them any cleaner."

"If you keep talking about your laundry, I won't let you fuck me," Merlin said, his sternness belied by the way his voice wavered at the end.

"Then I'd best not mention the shirts you crammed behind my dresser," Arthur said, as he kissed him. "Or the state of my best dining jacket. Or the come-stains on my bedclothes."

Merlin whimpered against his mouth. "Shut up. No, don't shut up. Wait--"

Arthur chuckled, and kissed Merlin deeply. He didn't resist as Merlin rose up against him and pushed him down against the bed. Merlin covered him, lithe and hot, and he was as eager and soft and sweet as ever. But Arthur wasn't some old man who should have known better, and Merlin wasn't a boy who was too proud to admit his own pain. Merlin knew what he wanted and he wasn't afraid of it. He probably even had oil in that bag of his, which was never far from hand so Merlin could pull out whatever they might need. Arthur would bet his tournament winnings on it.

They undressed together, remarkably unhurried, kissing and touching as their clothing fell away. Arthur wanted to do this properly. To take his time and not be caught up in his own lust. He wanted to have Merlin in his bed and keep him there. Possibly forever.

"Oh!" Merlin said, pausing as he was halfway onto the bed. "Just a second." He scurried over to the corner where his bag was, and rifled through it, pulling out a small phial of oil. He smiled as he hurried back to bed.

"I knew it," Arthur laughed. "How long have you been carrying that around?"

"This particular oil, or oil in general?" Merlin asked, shiftily.

Arthur took the phial from him and turned it, seeing how the viscous liquid caught the candlelight. "Is this from the armory?"

"I was using up Gaius' supplies," Merlin admitted, fighting a blush. "He gave me the eyebrow."

Arthur laughed. "I'm amazed you survived."

"Death did seem an attractive option," Merlin said, grimacing. "I, um, may have used a lot of it. While you were gone."

Arthur ran the edge of the phial across Merlin's lower lip. "And what did you do, exactly, to selfishly use up Gaius' expensive oil?"

Merlin's blush was intense. "Um. Things."

"What sort of things?" Arthur prodded. He could guess, but he wanted to know.

Merlin bit his lip. He ducked his head. He mumbled something.

"What was that?"

"Experiments," Merlin repeated, reluctantly.

Arthur felt a warm curl in his belly. "Tell me," he said, eagerly.

Merlin covered his face with his hand. "I can't." He peeked out between his fingers. "It's um. Embarrassing."

Arthur laughed. "After everything we've done together, what could possibly be embarrassing?"

"It's not... I was... I got carried away," Merlin admitted. "A bit. Um. Thinking about you. I thought I wouldn't be able to look you in the face ever again."

"And now?"

Merlin dropped his hand. He met Arthur's eyes, then dropped his gaze again, to where Arthur was tracing the end of the phial along Merlin's collarbone.

"I want you to show me," Arthur said, bringing the phial back up to Merlin's lips, and letting the glass click against his teeth. Merlin's lips parted, and he sucked lightly at the phial. Arthur dragged it back and forth over Merlin's tongue, then held it still as Merlin's cheeked hollowed for him.

"Is this what you imagined?" Arthur asked, soft and curious. "The taste of my cock, as you touched yourself?"

Merlin slid his mouth from the phial. "Not your cock," he said, roughly. "Your hand. First it was your hand."

Arthur shift his grip on the phial so two fingers were free, and he touched them to Merlin's mouth. Merlin kissed his hand, then took it and guided it down, down. The phial was abandoned as Merlin wrapped Arthur's hand around his cock.

"Like this?" Arthur asked. He kept his fist loose, the way Merlin had left it, and stroked back and forth.

"Yeah," Merlin said, with a slow blink. He breathed in sharply, perhaps in remembrance, and breathed out in a long shudder. "Arthur," he sighed.

"What else did I do to you?" Arthur continued.

"You put your fingers inside me," Merlin said, in almost a whisper. "You held me so tight. You let me kiss you. But it wasn't... I couldn't make it real enough. It wasn't you."

"Did I fuck you?"

"No," Merlin said, meeting his eyes again. "I couldn't. It wouldn't be you."

Something bloomed in Arthur's chest at that. "You have no more need of fantasies," he said, and released Merlin's cock. He found the phial and pressed it to Merlin's hand. "Show me how you were. Open yourself for me."

Merlin tugged open the phial with his teeth and dribbled oil onto his fingers. He let Arthur take the phial back and stopper it, and then positioned himself. Arthur could see the moment Merlin's hidden fingers pressed inside, from the flex of his arm to the way his brow furrowed in concentration.

"That's it," Arthur said, voice low. He watched as Merlin writhed slowly before him, eyes fixed on him, staring as if to soak him up with his eyes. Merlin bit his lip, and made tight whimpers as his arousal rose.

"Arthur," Merlin pleaded, softly. "Touch me, please."

"Is that what I did?" Arthur asked, as he rested his hand on Merlin's belly.

"Yes," Merlin said, tight with need. "You have to touch me."

"Like this?" Arthur asked, rubbing low on Merlin's belly. He slid lower. "Like this?"

"My cock," Merlin groaned, flexing his arm faster.

Arthur smiled as he wrapped his hand around Merlin's erection. He held it lightly, not stroking, as he watched Merlin's reaction. He couldn't get enough of Merlin's desperation for him. Sometimes it seemed that every time he touched Merlin, it was the first time again. As if every night, Merlin forgot that Arthur was his, and was shocked anew at what he had.

"Touch me," Merlin begged, rutting between their hands, pushing against his own fingers and then thrusting into Arthur's loose fist. "Please, Arthur, please."

Arthur released him, then slicked both his hands with oil. He gripped Merlin's cock with his left, then reached around and touched the join of Merlin's fingers with his body. He traced around the stretched skin, and when he pressed, Merlin writhed against his fist. He swallowed Merlin's moans with his mouth, leaning down and kissing him as he pressed a finger in alongside Merlin's, and felt Merlin clench tight around him. He kept going, kissing Merlin over and over, letting Merlin rut into his fist, and rubbed and pressed his finger alongside Merlin's two until Merlin bucked and came with a sob.

Arthur stilled his finger as Merlin clenched rhythmically around it, and pulled tight strokes on Merlin's cock, dragging him through his aftershocks and smearing him with his own come. He didn't stop until Merlin was whimpering and pleading into his mouth, begging that he couldn't take any more, he just couldn't. Arthur relented, and kissed him deeply.

Merlin was still trembling as Arthur pulled away and turned him over, his finger and Merlin's still pressed inside. Merlin's hole was stretched and glistening, and swollen from use. Merlin started to pull his hand away, but Arthur stopped him, and held him in place. He pulled out his own finger, and leaned in and licked at Merlin's hole, and at the long fingers half inside it. He nipped and sucked at them, laved them like a cock.

Finally, he released Merlin's wrist, pulling his fingers free so Arthur could taste his hole. He lapped at it, tasting the familiar tang of the polishing oil, the musk of Merlin's body. Merlin tasted rich and dark and good, and he writhed and clenched deliciously under Arthur's mouth. Arthur feasted on him until Merlin was hard again, and bucking at the sheets.

"Gods, Arthur," Merlin moaned, voice thick with need. "Fuck me, please just fuck me. I can't take any more."

"Yes, you can," Arthur told him, and pressed two fingers into Merlin's loosened hole. He ignored Merlin's pleading, his protests; held him down with his left hand as he fucked him with his right. He added a third finger and stretched him and fucked him until Merlin came again, until he collapsed, limp and shuddering and whimpering noisily into the pillows.

Arthur found the vial again and tipped the last of the oil right into Merlin's hole, which gaped open as if hungry to be filled. He pressed two fingers back inside, smearing and pushing the oil deep, and coaxing more strained whimpers from Merlin.

Finally, he turned Merlin over. Merlin glared at him, but he was so addled from his afterglow that it was only adorable. As Arthur leaned over him, the proximity made Merlin's eyes cross, and Merlin blinked and shook his head, trying to clear it. Arthur kissed him tenderly, then deeply, pressing his tongue into Merlin's mouth with promise.

"Ready?" he asked.

Merlin made an incoherent sound. "Don't make me hurt you," he said, tightly.

Arthur just laughed. He rose up and moved into position, hooking Merlin's legs over his shoulders. He stroked his slick fingers on his cock, and gave it a squeeze to dampen his own arousal. He wanted this to last, wanted to take his time. He wanted to give Merlin something he would remember, so when the morning came he would not forget that he was Arthur's.

He bent over Merlin, meeting his eyes as he pressed the head of his cock to his hole. He sank in slowly, and gasped at the initial tightness, despite how open Merlin was for him. He pushed past it and the slight burn of friction, and Merlin's body welcomed him deep. Arthur thought of what Merlin had promised, that he would be the perfect sheath to Arthur's sword. Arthur thought that perhaps he had just used too much oil, but could not shake the notion despite himself. Merlin's body felt made for him.

Merlin was lost. He was trembling, his eyes unfocused, his mouth slack. He was breathing shallowly, but not from any pain. When Arthur finally pulled back to thrust again, Merlin roused, arching and gasping and tightening around Arthur all at once. He reached up and grasped at Arthur with his left hand, trying to drag him down. Arthur thrust deep, all in one smooth glide, and Merlin cried out.

"Feels good?" Arthur asked, smugly.

"I hate you," Merlin gasped. He met Arthur's next thrust and clenched hard. "You are the worst. Go faster, you clotpole."

Arthur buried himself deep and stopped, his stomach muscles jumping. "Did you just call me a clotpole?"

"Fuck," Merlin groaned, writhing on his cock, trying to shallowly fuck himself on it despite his lack of leverage.

"You can't order me around," Arthur taunted, and gave a sharp thrust that made Merlin arch his back.

A desperate sound wrenched itself out of Merlin. "If you don't fuck me hard right now, I am going to die."

Arthur laughed. "Can't have that," he said, and thrust again.

Finally, he gave in to his own pent-up need. He fucked Merlin hard, making up for the extra oil by fucking through it. Merlin was loud, and Arthur knew he should have gagged him for this but he needed to hear everything, needed to hear every whimper and groan and plead, to hear that Merlin's voice was full of only need and lust and ache. He wouldn't let Merlin be hurt, wouldn't let him bleed, but he wanted Merlin to feel every inch of the cock he begged for. Wanted him to be so sore that in the morning that he would still feel Arthur inside him.

The thought of it, of Merlin sore from him and full of his come; the tight, slick heat of Merlin's arse; the constant, desperate pleading, and the way Merlin writhed and clung and clenched for him: all of it was too much to hold back from. Arthur drove himself as deep as he could and came hard, pouring himself into Merlin's body, into the core heat of him, bending Merlin almost in half as he gripped him wholly.

He was aware of Merlin crying out and clenching around him; of wetness between their bodies.

When he came back to himself, he released Merlin slowly, shaken by the strength of his own reaction. He felt as though he had nearly crushed Merlin, but Merlin didn't care, was seeking after him as he pulled out despite being sodden with afterglow and utterly limp. He caught Arthur and pulled him down onto the bed, then splayed himself around him like tangling vines. Merlin snuggled happily, and Arthur's anxiety eased, and he held Merlin back, stroking and petting him as they recovered.

"I can't help but notice I'm getting the better deal," Merlin slurred, breaking the quiet..

"That's what you think," Arthur said, smiling dopily. He fancied he could still feel Merlin clenching around his tongue and his fingers and his cock. He nuzzled Merlin's soft hair and kissed his head.

"Just you wait," Merlin said, and yawned. "I'm going to tie you down and make you come three times in a row. That'll show you."

"Looking forward to it," Arthur slurred, sleepily. He rather thought he would order another bath in the morning, and that this time they would share it.

§

The council session started late the next morning. Everyone seemed to be hungover except for Arthur and Merlin. Especially Uther, who looked greener now than he had after he'd found out he'd feasted on an enchanted Terit for several weeks.

Their morning bath had been refreshing, and Arthur had enjoyed himself. He'd especially enjoyed teasing Merlin's tender hole with the tip of his finger, and then pushing inside to wash Merlin out until he came, pulsing into the hot water. More of the same was always the best cure. Arthur was certain that Merlin had appreciated that, even if he was shifting restlessly where he stood by the wall, too sore to keep still. After all, Merlin had returned the favor with a groggy but enthusiastic blowjob. Arthur had kissed Merlin's mouth clean, after that, and rubbed Merlin's belly, deeply satisfied to know that Merlin would be walking around all day with Arthur's come inside him after all.

Merlin was his, and it was time that Arthur made that fact as clear as possible.

"Before we begin," Arthur said, as Uther stared blearily at a document, "I request a delay in escorting King Terit back to Mercia. I require several weeks to complete my training of the new knights."

"Absolutely not," Uther said, shaking his head and then regretting the action. "Terit's removal from Camelot is imperative. You will escort him as soon as the messenger returns with Bayard's response."

"Father," Arthur began, his annoyance leaking out despite himself.

"The decision is made," Uther said, with finality. "The interruption of one week won't make a difference in their training. If you think they have the skill, take them along as your guards. Give them a taste of the real thing."

Arthur thought with surprise that it was actually a good idea. "I shall, Sire."

"Good," Uther said. "That's settled."

The rest of the session went quickly, mostly because everyone was too hungover to argue, and some of the councilors were barely even willing to read the documents in front of them, as they winced and squinted from their headaches. Arthur could have passed around a document that authorized their own hangings, and they would have signed without a second's thought.

Before they finished, Arthur interrupted again.

"I do have one more matter of order," he said, casually. "I've decided to accept Merlin as my manservant, full-time. I'll be moving him in today."

Out of the corner of his vision, Arthur saw Merlin's eyes widen with shock, alarmed that Arthur appeared to be outing them publicly, right in front of his father. Across the table, Gaius looked at him with sharp eyes, suddenly clear of any liquored haze. But his father just laughed.

"Finally," Uther said, slapping the table and then regretting it when the noise was too loud for his sore head. He rubbed at his temple. "I was starting to give up hope."

Arthur smiled graciously. "I apologize for my long resistance."

"This is excellent news," Uther said, proudly. "The people of this kingdom exist to serve you, Arthur. You must feel no guilt over the use of them." Then he laughed. "By the time that boy arrived, you'd turned away half the staff. Didn't you actually nail up the door to your servant's chamber?"

"The foolishness of youth," Arthur lied. He'd been adamant at the time, and in a temper. He'd been sick of the manservants his father assigned him, who grovelled and bowed and sniveled, and who all belonged to his father. He hadn't trusted any of them, and had hated the thought of them in his chambers, in his one safe place.

His father had interpreted his resistance as another case of Arthur having too much regard for the lower classes, and there had been truth to that. His father thought that servants and commoners were worth little, and that they were meant to be used by the nobles above them; that their service and their lives were pledged from birth, to be taken and discarded with no regard, because they were worth no regard. It didn't matter that common hands grew and harvested the grain that filled their bellies, that common hands wove the cloth that kept them warm, that common hands fought and died for them, and were lucky to have the dignity of a grave for their trouble.

"I understand now," Arthur continued, obsequiously. "Merlin is mine to use as I see fit. He may not be the most polished of servants, but he has proven his loyalty. I have accepted his desire to serve me."

"I hate to deprive Gaius of his apprentice, but the boy never did show much talent for it," Uther said.

"As you say," Gaius nodded, as unreadable as ever. Arthur thought that he should bring Gaius along for any future treaty negotiations. The eyebrow alone would win them endless concessions.

"I'm certain I could spare Merlin should an emergency arise," Arthur allowed. "It would be a shame to waste the few skills he has acquired."

"Good, good," Uther said. "You know, the boy has shown rather extraordinary loyalty to you. I saw it myself. That sword he bought for you. Whatever happened to it?"

"Sword?" Arthur asked, confused. He glanced at Merlin, who looked back with wide-eyed innocence.

"Yes, he'd had it made for you to use against the black knight. I left it in the armory. There was writing on the blade, very distinctive." Uther's eyes went distant with memory. "It had almost perfect balance."

"I'm afraid I never saw it," Arthur said, and noticed that Gaius was frowning even deeper than usual. "I'm sure it's just been misplaced."

"See that you find it," Uther said, and rubbed his temples again. "Council is dismissed. Gaius, I require one of your cures."

"Of course, Sire." Gaius cast a concerned glance at Arthur, then rose to obey.

Arthur left them to it, and Merlin followed him back to their chambers. Arthur grabbed a passing girl and gave her orders, and in minutes a small swarm of servants descended on Arthur's chambers. They moved the dresser that blocked the door and pulled out the nails, and then pushed inside to clean. The room was dusty and cobwebbed from disuse.

Merlin peered inside, obviously still reeling from the announcement. He blinked at the room. It was small, but bigger than the little room in Gaius' tower, and there was a larger bed with a proper mattress.

"Make sure they arrange everything to your liking," Arthur told him. "Settle in when they're done. I'll be back soon."

Merlin nodded, and Arthur left him to it. He walked down the steps and across the courtyard to Gaius' tower, considering the right words for what he was about to say. When he walked inside, Gaius was puttering around the room, cleaning up from preparing the headache cure he'd made for Uther.

"Sire," Gaius greeted, with guarded concern. "Do you also have a headache from the feast?"

"No, no," Arthur said, pausing at the end of a long table. "I wanted to talk to you about Merlin."

"Yes," Gaius said, warily. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"My father sees what he wants to see," Arthur said, confidently. "That's a trick you understand, is it not?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Sire."

"Exactly," Arthur said, trying not to smile. Gaius was a sly one. Arthur was beginning to realize he had been as easily fooled as his father, where Gaius was concerned. The old man was as sharp as a tack.

"I will let no harm come to him," Arthur continued, sobering. "And I would not keep him from you. He is free to help you as time allows, as he always has."

Gaius looked relieved. "I appreciate that, Sire. Merlin is of great help to me. He would not be easy to replace." Then he quirked a smile, perhaps as something of a peace offering. "But I'm certain he will be glad to no longer have to clean the leech tank."

Arthur laughed. "That he will be."

Arthur wanted to ask more, but he took his leave. He wanted to press Gaius for answers: about how he had known about Terit; about the mysterious sword; about all the times Gaius had pulled Merlin aside for some private conversation. If Gaius was involved with magic somehow, Arthur wanted to find out. He wouldn't tell his father, because to endanger Gaius would be to risk Merlin as well, both his life and his trust. But he needed to know for himself. Magic was one of his father's biggest blind spots, and Arthur wanted his own vision to be clear.

Perhaps magic was as evil and corrupting as his father had always declared it to be. Magic had so often been used against Arthur, to threaten his life or his father's or Camelot itself. Countless sorcerers had sought to harm them, Cedric only the latest in a long line. Arthur could not deny that magic was a danger to be guarded against. Perhaps his father's singular rage was justified, and nothing good could ever come of it.

But Arthur had never forgotten the mysterious ball of light that had saved him in the Forest of Balor, when he had been so desperate to reach the Mortaeus flower. Whoever or whatever had sent that light, it had protected him, and in doing so had saved Merlin's life. For the sake of that, Arthur could not blindly hate.

§

When he returned to his chambers, the bustle of servants was absent. He locked his door and walked into the little side room, and found Merlin had made himself at home. A row of trinkets rested on the windowsill, his bag rested on his chair, and his pile of clothes had been stuffed into his dresser, with one battered scarf hanging from a drawer. Merlin was stretched out on his bed, basking in the morning light, a peaceful smile on his face.

"Settled in?" Arthur asked, sitting on the edge of the bed beside him.

Merlin gave a contented hum. "I love this bed."

"Even more than mine?" Arthur asked, with false dismay.

Merlin pretended to consider the question. "Maybe not that much," he relented. "But it's really nice."

Arthur smiled at him. "Shame you're not going to be using it much."

Merlin smiled back, and gave a wriggle, then winced.

"Is your little bottom sore?" Arthur teased.

"Terribly," Merlin pouted, then looked worried. "Arthur, I'm all right. Really."

"I know," Arthur said, and he did.

"Good," Merlin said, relaxing again. "I can't believe you said that to your father. I thought he was going to have me killed on the spot!"

Arthur leaned over him. "Did you like it? Me saying you were mine, right in front of the council?"

Merlin squirmed again, and bit his lip. "Maybe."

"Taking you into my chambers," Arthur murmured, leaning down to kiss Merlin's neck. "Taking your life as my own."

Merling gave a delicious groan, and Arthur tasted the vibrations with his mouth. "Arthur," he sighed.

"Keeping you," Arthur continued, and Merlin writhed beneath him, clung to him. Arthur was going to take him on this bed, fuck him on it until he was loose and lost the way he had been last night. He would ruin Merlin's sheets with come and oil, and knew that Merlin would leave them dirty for too long, just so he could rub himself in the scent of them. Arthur nipped at his neck, thinking of Merlin snuffling at the sheets and touching himself, perhaps while Arthur worked at his desk, with the door between them open wide.

"You're coming with me to Mercia," Arthur told him, suddenly.

"All right," Merlin sighed, happily.

"I don't care if I have to strap you to your horse. I'm not letting you out of my sight," Arthur insisted.

Merlin laughed. "You don't have to strap me to my horse. Though that is an idea. The strapping, I mean."

Arthur's momentum was entirely halted by the image of Merlin straining against leather bonds. "So it is," he said, voice tight. Merlin was absolutely going to be the death of him, and it was going to be glorious.

Then he smirked. "Perhaps I should bring that sword with me as well. It sounded very impressive. What did it say, the lettering on the sides?"

Merlin went still beneath him. "Um."

"It must have been expensive, a fancy sword like that."

"It wasn't," Merlin said, tightly. "Gwen gave it to me."

"Did she?"

"Yes," Merlin said, sobering. "It was her father's finest work. The best sword in all of Camelot. She gave it to me so I could keep you safe."

"Of course," Arthur said, and kissed him for that. For being so hopelessly protective of him. "So what happened to it?"

Merlin looked away. "I had to take it somewhere. Your father used it, and it wasn't... I shouldn't have let him. It was supposed to be for you."

"Maybe you can bring it back to me," Arthur said, tracing Merlin's cheek.

Merlin looked back at him, smiling again. "Maybe I can."

Arthur smiled. "So what did it say? The writing?"

Merlin looked at him, devotion cresting in his eyes. "It said 'take me up.' Take me up."

Arthur followed his command and took Merlin up into his arms, where he belonged.